Friends of Pan Kisses Kafka Guest Blog: Tales from the Trenches I

By far the best thing that came out of “Thesis Hatement” was the outpouring of mail I got from folks all over the world sharing their experiences. Sometimes, these messages thanked me (what? no, thank YOU for reading!!!) for my willingness to put my name on an experience that so many of us share, but that very few have little enough to lose so that they can speak about it freely (I spoke exactly as freely about it today in the Chronicle of Higher Ed—this piece is available to subscribers only, which has protected me from the usual torrent of vitriol).

ANYWAY. One of the best messages I got—really have ever gotten—was from Dr. Rachel Burgess, an English PhD and an essayist who pays close attention to all the variations of Belizean and Caribbean creative nonfiction. William Pannapacker tells us, wisely and rightly, to listen to long-term adjuncts for the real story of working in academia today. 

Dr. Burgess’s story appears below in her own words, and is the first in an ongoing series of guest blogs by Friends of Pan Kisses Kafka (hereinafter FoPKK, catchy, right?). I couldn’t pay much, but I paid for this contribution—and if you have a story to tell about your experience in academia, I will pay you for yours. Email me or leave a 100-word pitch in the comments.

And now, without further ado…

On Having a J-O-B

When former students run into me rocking my United States Postal Service uniform on the streets of northeast Portland, Oregon, they’re pretty surprised.  With my navy blue satchel around my waist, flats resting on my left forearm, a stack of letters in my left hand, and letters-to-be-delivered in my right, I’m walking at a pretty good clip to cover about ten miles of terrain.  While they’re answering my questions about their current classes, their lives, and “Are you still writing?”, their nonchalance betrays the “But you have a Ph.D.” look on their faces.  A few even seem to feel ashamed, sorry, for me—as if I took a step down from something great.  In their estimations, my having a Ph.D. means that I should be teaching at a university, not carrying mail.

The student I ran into at the Dollar Tree store, for instance, peered above her spectacles to sneer: “So you’re working for the post office now.  Okay.”  Why, indeed, I am.  I have a full-time job where I am respected, where I make a living wage, and where the union has historically done well to protect the rights of letter carriers.  As an adjunct, I was continuously grading over 120 essays in their various stages of disarray, I was a long way from being respected and, worst of all, when a worker in the Human Resources Department where I taught made an accounting error that overpaid writing instructors for their office time for three years (three years!), the union failed to protect them from having to pay a portion of that money back to the institution.  Thanks to their mistake, I had to pay the institution to work there.

I was getting absolutely nothing in return for doing such emotionally taxing work.  I was not getting financial support to attend conferences that would help me remain abreast of all the awe-inspiring knowledge production that happens in the groves of the academe.  I was not making enough money to keep up with my affiliations.  I was most certainly neither writing nor doing my research.  I taught the same courses each quarter, read basically the same tortured essays, and none of that work helped me to remain competitive for a job market saturated with humanities Ph.D.s.  On adjunct wages, I couldn’t afford to keep up with my professional affiliations or fly out to MLA, AWP, or ASS conferences (much less pay for registration fees and room and board). And I’d have been a fool to put any of that debt on my credit card, to be paid back when I got that dream job at Hampshire.  Not.  There are narratives of those who have managed, despite being an adjunct, to land that tenure track or visiting professor position, to jump off the adjunct track and onto one of those vaunted lecturer positions teaching glorified composition with Writing Programs at Duke, Stanford, Princeton, or Wake Forest.  But that’s not my narrative or the narrative of anyone I know.

I needed a job, so I went and found one. And (check this out, Pannapacker! —Ed.) I listed all of my degrees on the application.  I took the postal exam and a urine test, passed both, and I got a job.  The student at Dollar Tree didn’t seem to quite understand how important it is for me to have a job during these times of diminished employment opportunities.  I could not afford to keep going on the market when it was so very, incredibly, clear to me that I wasn’t going to get that kind of job.  I now have a job where the rules for letter carriers are explicit enough and aren’t hidden under some department chair’s someone-pissed-in-cheerios-today button. In my job, I get a steady paycheck, and the union actually works to protect my rights.

Though I didn’t like the Dollar Tree student’s response, I understood her reaction.  For many, a degree in a specific field equals a job.  Whether one goes to a non-profit, a state, or a private educational institution, the current rhetoric around education and the narratives this rhetoric produces frame the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. (and all the others) as essential to landing a job in one’s chosen specific field.  And, sometimes, this is true.  For a multitude of people, the credential functions exactly as it is supposed to.  The Ph.D. is nothing more than that—a credential.  It signals a number of things to potential employers, namely that the holder is capable of being trained because said person has the capacity to learn how to do a job and can do it well.  In some situations, it signals that potential employees are too overeducated for work that underemploys them.  In others, the credential opens up the door to slightly better or much better employment.

The Ph.D. was supposed to land me a job specific to full-time university teaching and research.  I did not land too far from the teaching patch; however, I landed in the throes of a denselybarbed adjunct bush.  I was never going to get a full-time teaching gig at the community college where I taught; there’s a list of adjuncts ahead of me (years, decades, ahead), an even longer list of higher ups (and sycophants) to propitiate, there’s nepotism, and there’s the whole “not a good fit” drivel with which to contend.  And just because I love to teach and am good at it does not mean I should continue to teach in a setting that depresses me, both financially and emotionally.  The students I’ve run into believe I should still be teaching because I’m a good teacher.  Yes, I love teaching, and, yes, I am good at it, but I needed a job.  A J-O-B.  All caps.  Seriously.

Although the postal service certainly has its share of major issues and some believe the handwritten epistle is a dying art, it is one of the last bastions of a participatory democracy (as are public libraries and museums) in this country, the one we all claim to live in.  As long as there’s mail, there will be a letter carrier (me) to deliver it.  Working for the postal service in no way halts or interrupts the mentoring I still do.  I am in contact with students who took classes I taught three, five, seven, years ago.  My recommendations get students into the schools of their choice; it gets them scholarships and internships.  My advice helps them navigate their own graduate school adventures.  I can actually do this work much better now that I am no longer adjuncting.

A fellow letter carrier at the station wants to call me Dr. Rachel.  He asked me one day, “I understand you have a Ph.D.?”  I blushed at this, my mind racing to figure out how to respond.   “All it means,” I paused, “is that I spent five years studying a set of particular subjects.  It neither means I am the smartest person in the world nor does it mean the only place for one with a Ph.D. is in academe.”  He still insists on calling me Dr. Rachel—which is fine because that is my title.

Rachel Burgess lives, writes, and works in the Pacific Northwest. 


11 thoughts on “Friends of Pan Kisses Kafka Guest Blog: Tales from the Trenches I

  1. This is a great story! I love the insistence throughout that work has dignity, value, and deserves compensation and protection, regardless of the field.
    I think that sort of focus on on working conditions over specific job types is much, much needed, not only to guide us individuals looking to make a living, but as a way of finding solidarity as low-wage workers across the country are starting to strike in demand for *more* and *more official* work, not less.

    Good job at life and writing, Dr Rachel, and good job at recognizing and paying for good work, Dr Rebecca!


    • BOOM. You are correct on all counts. Rachel Burgess is a treasure and I hope she gets a book deal, immediately. Like a real one, that pays money. Not so she’ll have to quit the post office, but because the world needs 300 of her pages, NOW.


  2. Having just come through 2-1/2 years of thankless, frustrating, poorly supported, nearly impossible adjunct work teaching composition at my local community college, only to be passed over when it came time to hire F/T faculty, I want to take a highlighter and underline every passage in this essay. My students weren’t in any position to be taught composition, my department had no desire to support adjunct faculty in teaching composition, and the whole exercise was a paper chase for everyone (quite literally for me; I could measure the essays I had to read in feet rather than pages, and I once calculated that my rate of pay for the hours I actually spent doing teaching-related activities was barely minimum wage). I already know how this goes because I’ve expressed these sentiments before: someone’s going to come along and say I was lazy, undisciplined, unprepared — in short, a bad teacher. For what it’s worth, I’m actually the kind of teacher you’d want teaching composition. I’m creative, inventive, well read, painstakingly professional, and extremely demanding. But as Rachel points out, those aren’t necessarily the skills that are in demand. The analogy I’d draw is this one: You could line up the finest surgeon in the country to repair your mitral valve, but if he has to operate in the dark with a butter knife, you aren’t going to be happy with the results.


    • I find it so…I guess I’ll say “interesting” and you can take every negative connotation you wish, that often people’s first reaction to an adjunct who is being put through hellish work conditions is to attack that adjunct, to blame a gross systemic failure and exploitative system on the personal failings of someone who is quite obviously doing (more than) the best they can with less than nothing. It says a lot more about your fellow humans than it does about your “failings,” of which, in this situation, you seem to have none that I can tell. I very much hope that you told that school to fuck off and landed somewhere that appreciates your gifts. Fight on, and thanks for reading.


  3. Wild cheering from the gallery… I’m snagging this one to re-post, probably in as many places as I get away with. Plus spreading to FoPKK call…

    When adjuncts stay (for whatever reason), they are attacked in packs as losers, told to shut up and leave. So some leave and get a good job not considered “appropriate” to their education…”no win” and “vicious circle” are the expressions that come to mind.

    Is the lesson that we are supposed not just to put up crap but like it? Like the old deer hunting camp joke goes, “tastes like shit but good.” If it is, a new text/book is overdue.

    Yet out in the workplace, what matters is doing your share, giving a co-worker a hand when you can, and not laying off work on someone else because you are more educated or copping an attitude. Be that and the PhD wont bother or change how your co-workers accept you.


  4. Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    Win, win, win: new feature Friends of Pan Kisses Kafka (FoPKK), kicking off with a great, don’t miss read. *and* a Call for Submissions —and if you have a story to tell about your experience in academia, I will pay you for yours. Email me or leave a 100-word pitch in the comments.


  5. We need an anthology of this kind of story. We need a book tour. We need performance art to go along with it. We need to shame every administrator in every university with it by touring it to their campus and soliciting stories from their adjuncts as we go.


  6. Wonderful piece of writing. A J-O-B that makes you proud to do what you do every day? Happy to read this life’s narrative and I wish every educator would do the same.


  7. Awesome. Just awesome. This guest post should be printed out (huge font) and tacked, Luther-style, on every tenured faculty’s office door. I’ve actually been adding Trader Joe’s to my prospective list of post-academic jobs.


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